Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: BORN RECKLESS (1930)

It's called a "John Ford Production" but who directed it? We're told that it was "staged" by Andrew Bennison. What this seems to mean is that Bennison played that short-lived role of the early talkie era, the dialogue director. Folks at Fox Film apparently weren't sure of Ford's ability to direct dialogue, or else Ford, more interested in free-range camera movement in the manner of his erstwhile studio stablemate F. W. Murnau, couldn't be bothered with the dialogue scenes. There's definitely some impressive camera movement here for a 1930 film, along with the sort of dense set design typical of Fox's late silents. The camera lurks through the narrow, crowded streets of the main city set early on to establish the protagonist's milieu. The art direction is impressive without quite being convincing, and that goes for the story, too.

Ford and Dudley Nichols adapted what apparently was a popular novel by Donald Henderson Clarke. Louis Beretti was well enough known that star Edmund Lowe could be identified as the novel's title character in some movie advertising, though Fox didn't see fit to name the film after the novel. Beretti is a neighborhood hood who goes to war and survives to make a fresh start back home. He keeps his criminal career secret from his old-world parents, switching from dapper gangster duds into a worker's overalls before coming home for spaghetti dinner. The cops aren't fooled so easily and Beretti is brought in for questioning. At the suggestion of a drunken reporter (Lee Tracy, shortly before his brief breakout to stardom) the authorities give Louis and his buddies the option of enlisting -- it's 1917 and bands are playing "Over There" everywhere -- with the promise of pardons if they make good as soldiers. The real idea is to burnish the police chief's reputation as a patriot, but whatever the ulterior motives involved Beretti is willing to give war a shot.

The next section is a botch that nearly cripples the film and can probably be blamed all on Ford. War is supposed to change Louis Beretti in some way, but Born Reckless never follows him into combat. Instead, we get a lot of Fordian shenanigans in boot camp and behind the lines featuring some of the usual suspects like Ward Bond. John Wayne is supposed to be in the picture somewhere, historians claim, but I didn't notice him. A subplot is set up in which Beretti befriends a wealthy young man determined to prove himself in combat despite coddling from his parents, but after the establishing scene we don't get the payoff until Beretti narrates it to his friend's widow after the war. The military sequence plays like the road to a dead end, and having reached it Ford and Bennison simply give up and go back to the U.S.A.

Beretti has a longing for the widow, whom his dead buddy apparently talked up quite well, but before our hero can make a move we learn that Joan Sheldon (Catherine Dale Owen) has already hooked up with a new beau. While I missed John Wayne's passing presence in this picture, there was no mistaking an unbilled Randolph Scott as the new beau. At 32, Scott is as young as I've ever seen him. He's still paying his dues here, playing little more than a handsome profile who has no more than a few words of dialogue in his few scenes. But enough of him. Beretti goes more or less straight, opening up a niteclub whose presumed violations of Prohibition appear to bother no one. But his old friendship with the local underworld big shot, cleverly named Big Shot (Warren Hymer) deteriorates as Beretti is torn between respectability and his old crowd.The plot threads tie together when Big Shot, returned from a stretch in stir, makes a new racket of kidnapping, snatching Joan Sheldon's child. Beretti rescues the kid before a final showdown with Big Shot. Both scenes are nicely shot, the rescue introduced with a tracking shot of Beretti walking across a field to the kidnappers' hideout. The showdown is a slow burn leading to an explosion, Lowe and Beretti chatting at a bar with an odd, evasive formality that distantly anticipates the technique of Leone and Tarantino before they abruptly open fire on each other as the camera retreats through the bar's swinging doors. There are definitely pieces of a superior gangster film here, but it looks like Ford didn't know how to put them together. Part of the problem is Edmund Lowe's much too laid-back performance as Beretti, but you can't blame him for the film's faulty construction; he may have had as little proper direction as the movie as a whole did. Despite any ambiguity in the credits, Born Reckless is often unmistakably, and in this case unfortunately, a John Ford film.

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